Van Hollen: Climate bill could wait

The House may not vote on a climate change bill this year, according to a high-ranking Democratic leader.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told The Hill on Monday that leaders could opt not to bring a climate measure to the floor if the bill has little chance of passing the Senate.

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Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), had previously indicated they would pass a climate bill through the House by the August congressional recess.

The competing allegiances of Van Hollen — charged with leading Democrats into what is arguably their most challenging election cycle since 1994 and serving as a policy hand to Pelosi — were on display during his interview with The Hill.

Van Hollen, 50, became the highest-ranking House Democrat to say that even if an agreement is reached, the House may not vote on a cap-and-trade bill if the bill appears to have little hope of clearing the upper chamber.

“The first thing we need to do is see whether we can come together around a consensus position in the committees in the House, and that’s what we’re working on. And then, of course, if we were able to arrive at that, the question is whether you would take it to the floor, or do you wait to see if anything develops on the Senate side,” Van Hollen said.

“The chances of doing cap-and-trade in the Senate are much more difficult. We recognize that,” he added.

For a Democratic Caucus that has made the enactment of climate change legislation one of its highest priorities — Pelosi has called climate change the issue of her generation — the admission from a Democratic leader that the House may not vote on a long-awaited but controversial cap-and-trade bill this year is significant.

But it also speaks to how politically difficult a cap-and-trade vote could be. And it is a reflection of a reality in Congress: a cap-and-trade bill doesn’t have the votes to pass. While that could change in the months to come, few — if any — on Capitol Hill believe it has the necessary 60 votes in the Senate.

“I want to make clear I’m not suggesting that any kind of decision has been made like that,” Van Hollen said. “This is all right now moving, is all in flux. [Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman] Henry Waxman’s [D-Calif.] doing a great job in trying to put together a coalition of votes in support in his committee.”

Republicans have already invested significantly in attacking Democrats on cap-and-trade, referring to the bill as “cap and tax” and hoping to drive a wedge between Democratic leaders and their most politically vulnerable members.

Cap-and-trade is not the only bill that House Democrats are wary of bringing to a floor vote. The prospects of immigration reform and the so-called “card-check” bill favored by unions will need to improve in the Senate before House leaders commit to a floor vote on either contentious issue.

Democrats have proposed several remedies to global warming. Waxman has released a draft cap-and-trade bill, while Van Hollen, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, has introduced a “cap and investment” measure. Other Democrats are in favor of a carbon tax.

{mospagebreak}Up until now, Democratic leaders have been reluctant to suggest that the effort to enact a cap-and-trade bill will fail, get hung up in the Senate or have to be significantly scaled back even to get a majority vote in the House.

But Van Hollen laid down that very possibility — as well as how Democrats would deal with having to move the goalposts on climate change.

“If for any reason you can’t put together the votes in committee, there are a lot of other very important energy initiatives you can still take this year that may have a better opportunity in the Senate,” he said. “For example, a renewable electricity portfolio standard, dealing with the smart grid build-out. I’ve got a proposal to create a green bank; other people have other proposals out there to make it easier to finance green energy projects.

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“So if for any reason we weren’t able to — at this particular point in time — get the whole thing through the House, or if there was a decision made that because [of] what’s happening in the Senate we don’t move forward completely in the House, then there are other very important initiatives,” he continued.

A Democratic aide close to the climate debate noted that the Energy and Commerce Committee is still on schedule — even after having to delay its cap-and-trade markup until next week — and doing everything it can to build a consensus.

“It’s premature to be talking about contingency plans on the eve of a markup,” the aide said.

Waxman is looking to approve a bill out of his committee by the Memorial Day recess.

Pelosi has also been stressing that the consensus-building work is well under way, and that negotiations should not be mistaken for the lack of an agreement.

“We couldn’t pass a bill, nor would it be appropriate to pass a bill … that was a penalty to some states,” Pelosi said last Wednesday at an event commemorating the 39th Earth Day.

“That’s why, as we go forward with this, it’s a consensus-building [process],” she continued. “As we always do in our caucus, we build consensus, hopefully in a bipartisan way, as we go forward with energy.”

At the same time, the Speaker laid down a marker that, at least rhetorically, was different from previous commitments to pass Waxman’s bill through the House this year.

“It is my commitment that by the time we observe the 40th Earth Day next year, that we’ll have made substantial progress toward energy independence, toward reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and reversing the climate crisis.”

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Similarly, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told The Hill last week that House leaders have set a goal — not a deadline — of passing healthcare reform and climate change by the August recess.

Asked on Monday about other controversial bills such as immigration reform, Van Hollen kept returning to fixing the healthcare system as President Obama’s top legislative priority. While acknowledging there are some concerns among Democratic members about climate change, most Democrats are anxious to aggressively tackle healthcare reform.

“There is more consensus on moving forward on healthcare than there is on climate change,” said Van Hollen. “That having been said, there’s a real desire among new members to tackle the energy issues … The climate change debate sometimes cuts along regional lines as much as anything.”

When he took over the assistant to the Speaker position from Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier Becerra18 state attorneys general call on Justice Dept to release Mueller report California Assembly Speaker pens fiery response to Pence Dems prepare next steps after Trump's veto MORE (D-Calif.), who is now the caucus vice chairman, Van Hollen sought and received a larger budget and a bigger legislative portfolio, which now includes both a member-services aspect as well as an enhanced role in developing and helping to move the Democrats’ policy agenda.

But at the urging of Pelosi, he also agreed to stay on at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for a second cycle. Pelosi’s persuasive argument averted a leadership contest between Van Hollen and now-House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.).